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The Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse


In his book, “The Seven Principles of Making a Marriage Work”, John Gottman identifies 4 types of negative interactions used by both men and women that put a relationship at risk. He calls them “The four horsemen of the apocalypse” because they “clip clop” their way into a marriage and create conflict and discord if allowed to run rampant.

Read the descriptions below of each horseman and see which ones are most prominent in your own relationships.

Horseman #1 – Criticism

  • Gottman makes a distinction between criticism and complaints. Complaints are those small, day to day things that annoy us in all relationships. Criticisms, on the other hand, are global statements that speak not only to the specific situation of the moment but make reference to the person’s character or personality.
  • This horseman is common in most relationships and is not, by itself, a sign of severe marriage problems. What is of concern, however, is how prevalent this is in your marriage. When it becomes a common tone of conversation, it paves the way for the remaining horseman to appear.


Complaint: I get very frustrated when you don’t put your dishes in the dishwasher when you’re finished with them.

Criticism: I am sick and tired of you being so lazy and not putting your dishes in the dishwasher when you are done with them. You never seem to care about all the extra work you’re creating for me!

Horseman #2 – Contempt

  • Contempt shows up in a marriage when complaints and criticisms are combined with sarcasm and cynicism.
  • Behaviours such as name calling, rolling of the eyes, unpleasant attempts at humour, and mockery all demonstrate the presence of contempt in the relationship.
  • This horseman is the most damaging to relationships because it conveys a message of disgust. Finding solutions and common ground becomes impossible when contempt is present. Conflict and disagreement tend to escalate rather than be resolved.
  • If your smaller differences go unresolved, you are more likely to find both yourself and your partner focusing on negative thoughts and experiences. This fuels feelings of contempt.
  • Belligerence is a close cousin to contempt and is also deadly to relationships. It is a form of aggressive anger and often contains a threat and provokes increasing conflict.


Contempt: When a husband has just finished painting the bedroom for the new baby they are expecting, his wife arrives to check out the job he’s done. Her comments include, “Well, I suppose it’s okay if you don’t look too closely.” She then walks around the room checking out different areas while rolling her eyes and muttering disapproving remarks to herself.

Belligerence: When a wife consistently talks on the phone to her friends despite the fussing and cries for attention from her children, her husband asks her to please get off the phone and look after the kids. A belligerent response would be “What are you going to do about it, fire me!”

Horseman #3 – Defensiveness

  • Becoming defensive and offering criticism and blaming in response to the comments of someone else, escalates the conflict.
  • Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner while guarding against                   the impact of their comment on you.
  • Criticism, contempt, and defensiveness function like a relay match in a            relationship. Each one on the other and the conflict escalates if the couple does not put a stop to it.


Defensiveness: When a husband comes home to find unfolded laundry all over the living room, he comments to his wife how busy she must have been all day. She responds with

“It’s not my fault things are such a mess. If you came home earlier and actually helped out, things would be a lot easier around here.”

Horseman #4 – Stonewalling

  • This horseman appears when one partner eventually tunes out the other.
  • All the signals that allow the person talking to know they are being heard and understood are absent. The person listening appears distracted, disinterested, and disconnected.
  • Stonewalling usually arrives later on in a marriage as it takes a while for the first 3 horseman to become so overwhelming that one person tunes out.
  • 85% of stonewallers are men. This is not because of any weakness in them but is the result of the fact that men are more easily overwhelmed by marital conflict than their wives. Men experience a larger physiological response to stress and it affects their body longer than women. Their need to escape the stress and tune out often arrives sooner.


Stonewalling: As a wife is telling her husband, yet again, how she hates the fact that he is always home too late to see the kids before they go to bed, he simply puts his feet on the couch, picks up the newspaper, and begins to read the sports page.